Ireland votes on eliminating its Senate

Upper house of parliament seen as a waste of money and political willpower

Irish voters cast ballots during the Seanad (Senate) referendum in Dublin, Ireland, on Oct. 4, 2013.
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

Cash-strapped Ireland voted in a referendum on Friday on whether to back Prime Minister Enda Kenny's controversial proposal to abolish the upper house of the country’s parliament.

While the result of the nationwide vote will not be known until Saturday, polls suggest that voters are supportive of plans to get rid of the Seanad, or Senate, which many see as elitist and ineffective.

The cost-saving proposal stems from the view of many in Ireland that the Seanad mishandled money during Ireland’s economic boom, forcing the country to accept a bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund in late 2010.

In a YouTube message Thursday, Kenny pointed out that other European Union nations had scrapped their upper houses without any negative effect on their democracies.

"Other small countries like Sweden and Denmark have clearly shown that single chamber parliaments not only cost less but they work much more effectively and with far greater transparency," he said. "After 70 years of no change, it is time to save money, put the public ahead of politicians and abolish the Seanad."

Opponents of Kenny's plans admit that the 60-member upper house in its current form does not work, but they have said it should be reformed rather than closed.

Kenny and his Fine Gael party claim abolishing the upper house will save 20 million euros ($27 million).

But critics accuse Kenny's party of hiding behind a promise of savings to centralize power in the government's hands – and close the door on wider political reform.

Katherine Zappone, an independent member of the Senate, warned that those pushing for a “yes" vote were taking Ireland into "a constitutional no man's land."

"A 'yes' vote will see the constitution of Ireland filleted and dismembered," she said.

The Senate has 60 members. Most are elected by local councilors and by university graduates, although 11 are appointed by the prime minister.

Historically, many senators in Ireland tend to be politicians who failed to gain a seat in a general election, or those hoping to win a seat in the lower house in a future election.

The upper house is the less powerful house of parliament, often reduced to rubber-stamping legislation from the lower house.

Its ability to delay bills passed by the lower house for 90 days is its most powerful function, but that has only occurred twice in 75 years.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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